Chemicals from blue jean factories in Tehuacan, Mexico, have turned nearby canals bright blue. (Credit: Maquila Solidarity Network and the Human and Labour Rights Commission of the Tehuacan Valley)
In Mexico, the production of worn-out jeans has environmentalists singing the blues. Manufacturing methods send chemicals into nearby waterways. Jana Schroeder reports on how environmental authorities do and don’t enforce Mexican environmental laws
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Have you ever wondered how that new pair of jeans got that already lived-in look? They may have gotten that way at a factory in Mexico, where the jeans are hand-rubbed with sandpaper, sprayed with color and bleaches, or even washed with rocks. It seems there’s a price for fashion: a lot of water and chemicals are used in the process. Jana Schroeder traveled to a place that was once the blue jeans capital of the world, and has our story.
SCHROEDER: In a valley in central Mexico is the city of Tehuacán. The name means, “place of the gods” in Nahuatl. The city used to be known for its pure spring water believed to have healing properties.
HERNANDEZ: Whenever you hear the word Tehuacán, you think of water because it has become famous all over the centuries because of the high quality of the mineral water that springs up in this area.
SCHROEDER: Raúl Hernández has been working on water conservation in the Tehuacán area for 25 years. He says the local water has been ideal for bottling, and a popular brand of mineral water is even named after the city.
HERNANDEZ: Whenever you go into any restaurant in Mexico, and you want mineral water, you don’t ask for mineral water, you just say ‘I want a Tehuacán.’
SCHROEDER: The water was also once used in a thriving soft drink industry that has since fizzled out. Now, some of the abandoned facilities – built right over natural springs – are used by another industry that needs easy access to large volumes of water—the blue jean industry.
HERNANDEZ: One of the important processes in the blue jeans manufacturing is the stonewashing to give this kind of worn look by adding chemicals for color and then stones for washing it away,
SCHROEDER: Mr. Hernandez, who directs a nonprofit called “Water Forever,” says much of the water that goes into blue jean factories comes out contaminated with bleaches, detergents, dyes and other chemicals.
[VOICE: “Vamanos,” DOOR SLAMS SHUT, JEEP DRIVES OFF]
SCHROEDER: The chief engineer for the group, Gerardo Reyes, drives us to a blue jeans laundry on the outskirts of the city.
MAN: Allí está la lavandería, y allí puedes ver el agua que está corriendo.
SCHROEDER: We stop along the road just short of what looks like a small warehouse. Next to the road runs a stream of bright blue water in a narrow canal. It’s coming from the plant.
[JEEP DOOR OPENS AND SHUTS, WALKING. VOICE: “El agua está totalmente azul”]
SCHROEDER: The engineer says the noise we hear comes from the laundry machines. He points to the blue water with bits of pumice stone and lint, and says the water has obviously not been treated. He says this is worrisome since the aquifers—the underground water— are very close to the surface in this valley, and easily contaminated.
MAN: No va a ninguna planta.
SCHROEDER: Farther downstream, the canal becomes overgrown with weeds, so we can’t follow it to see where it goes, but a half mile from here is an old irrigation canal, the Valsequillo. This bigger canal was originally built to bring clean water from the hills above, but now it’s used to collect wastewater. Local environmental authorities are trying to crack down.
ATELA: Here we have the last inspection we have done in a laundry.
SCHROEDER: Martín Atela heads Tehuacán’s Environment Office, which has banned any new blue jean laundries within city limits. Since he took this post last year, he’s been inspecting those already operating.
ATELA: Sometimes if they do not want to open the door, is one of the problems, we have to be in the right place at the right moment. What we need is to have a permanent inspection, to see what is really happening there.
SCHROEDER: At one facility Mr. Atela found a treatment plant installed, but sitting idle. Critics of the industry say that’s not an isolated case, but Mr. Atela points to what he thinks is a bigger problem.
New blue jean factories, known as maquilas, are still coming in, but since the city tightened its standards, they’re locating in outlying areas, where there are no environment officials.
ATELA: Now every year more laundries are established because there are no regulations, local regulations.
SCHROEDER: Mr. Atela says a regional approach is needed—since his efforts are undone when contaminated water from the maquilas upstream flows down the Valsequillo Canal right through the city. But he says things are changing, thanks to foreign environmental standards.
ATELA: There are enterprises, especially foreign companies, that are asking us to make the inspection, because they need our official papers to testify that they are working well in order to export, and for us that’s wonderful.
SCHROEDER: Many smaller maquilas that sell within Mexico are immune from this foreign pressure. So, Mr. Atela says foreign companies are the best partners he’s found for reaching environmental goals.
Arturo Neira is the Export Manager at the largest blue jean maquila in the area, Cualquier Lavado. It churns out about ten million pairs of jeans a year for leading US brands such as Levi’s, GAP, and Old Navy.
NEIRA: Most of the prestigious brands that we work with request that we comply with all the environmental measures or laws obviously it has a cost. I know we made a huge investment, more or less about two million dollars.
SCHROEDER: Mr. Neira says the maquila sector is facing heavy criticism, for worker treatment and environment standards, just when it’s struggling to survive the tough competition.
NEIRA: Right now, this industry is, instead of growing, we’re going down. Because, we’re competing against the Orient, China, Central America, and they have labor costs which are a lot cheaper than us.
SCHROEDER: Mr. Neira takes me on a tour through the plant. He says the processes used are dictated by changing fashions. “Sand blasting” has been replaced by hand-sanding blue jeans with sand paper.
We walk by an area where workers—covered from head to foot with protective suits, masks and gloves—are spraying jeans with a bright purple chemical, potassium permanganate.
NEIRA: No es consejable respirarlo.
SCHROEDER: Mr. Neira says the chemical, which should not be inhaled, is one of those used to give jeans that “already worn” look. His company has installed an expensive water treatment plant, with a full-time engineer. But most plants are smaller and don’t invest in these controls.
Out behind the plant, Mr. Neira points to a small stream of clear water he says is the treated water from his factory. We watch it flow down into the Valsequillo Canal, where it immediately mixes with untreated wastewater from other maquilas, agricultural wastes, and sewage.
Where does all this wastewater end up? The same place it did back when clear water ran through the canal--into cornfields downstream.
[CORN FIELD SOUNDS]
SCHROEDER: Martín Barrios, the director of a human rights commission in Tehuacán, accompanies me about twelve miles down the valley, to the farming community of San Diego Chalma. Mr. Barrios is a labor activist and has co-authored a book about blue jean maquilas.
[WALKING IN A FIELD]
From the highway we walk a short distance into a cornfield fed by an irrigation ditch filled with dirty water.
BARRIOS: Ves esta milpa. Ayer o anteayer fue regada.
TRANSLATION: Look at this cornfield. You can see it was irrigated yesterday or the day before.
SCHROEDER: He picks up some of the soil. It has a bluish-gray layer on top that crumbles in his hand.
BARRIOS: Aquí es donde se termina finalmente su recorrido las aguas azules de las lavanderías…
TRANSLATION: This is where the blue water from the laundries reaches its final destination. Look at this handful of soil. It's all blue. Unfortunately, the negative side of globalization has brought this pollution from blue jeans to the fields and now it contaminates the food we eat in Tehuacán.
SCHROEDER: Local authorities concede that watering food crops with untreated industrial wastewater is a problem. Still, they say they haven’t tested the liquid to find out exactly what’s in it.
Mexico has environmental standards that limit the contaminants allowed in industrial discharge. Yet, ten years after the standards went into effect, authorities in Tehuacán say inspections are still only in the planning stage. A treatment plant at the end of the canal is also still on the drawing board.
BARRIOS: Dicen que ya va a venir la planta tratadora, tiene la planta tratadora, seis años...
TRANSLATION: They’ve been saying a treatment plant is coming for the last six years. Every year they say ‘next year.’ We need to demand that the treatment plant be built, and paid for not just by the town. These foreign plants have to pay for the problems they're creating. It’s everyone’s responsibility.
SCHROEDER: New blue jeans used to come off the shelf stiff and in a dark navy color. They took months to wear in. Some of today’s young consumers may not remember that. Activists like Martín Barrios wish more people would ask what it takes to give jeans that already-worn look and feel—the first time you slip them on.
For Living on Earth, I’m Jana Schroeder, in Tehuacán, Mexico.
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